A few years ago, in the early days of computer sports games, a friend and I used to play this football game where you could design your own plays using actual X’s and O’s. You would point to where the X’s and O’s were supposed to go and, in theory, they would follow their paths in a reasonable reproduction of an offensive or defensive play.
We spent countless hours trying to put in our Buddy Ryan defense.
We never got it working, never, and my theory is this was because a Buddy Ryan defense required a sort of swashbuckling gall that Buddy had and we lack. We thought it was enough to just send eight blitzers at the quarterback in a furious race to maul him before he could release the ball. That seemed to be the whole trick. But Buddy always knew there was more to it than that. He didn’t just design blitzes, he lived them. His whole life was one well-designed blitz.
“Chico!” he used to yell at Bears linebacker Ron Rivera during practice. “Get your ass over here! Stand here next to me!”
And then Buddy Ryan would quiz Rivera, again and again: What was that formation? What do we want to do in that formation? Where is the middle linebacker supposed to be? He taught Rivera, now coach of the Carolina Panthers, a valuable lesson, but it wasn’t the lesson that Rivera learned at first. Yes, of course wanted Rivera to understand the play, to understand why they were running the play, to understand what were the strengths and weaknesses of that formation.
More, though, he wanted, needed Rivera to FEEL the defese inside his gut. That’s the only way his freewheeling, go-for-glory, destroy-or-die-tryin’ defenses could possibly work.
Buddy Ryan died on Tuesday and there won’t ever be another one like him. “Quarterbacks,” he wrote in his playbooks, as discovered by Smart Football’s Chris Brown, “are overpaid, overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished.” If ever there were 10 words to sum up the coaching philosophy (and general philosophy) of James David “Buddy” Ryan, it is those.
He grew up in Oklahoma, around farms, and when he was 17 years old he went to war. He became a platoon sergeant in Korea. Years later Ryan was asked if he was scared. “Nah,” he said dismissively. “I was too young and dumb to be scared.”
He loved football, of course. He played both offensive and defensive line for the Fourth Army in Japan. He came back home and played some football at Oklahoma A&M. He then began coaching — high school, college, wherever they would take him. Gainesville High. University of Buffalo. Vanderbilt. The University of the Pacific. At some point, New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank came across his name and in 1968 Ewbank hired Ryan to coach the defensive line.
By then, Buddy had a two-pronged plan that he had carefully developed in the shadows:
Nobody even counted quarterback sacks back then. Buddy Ryan turned them into the very basis of defensive football. He vividly despised quarterbacks; to him they were just pretty boys who got too much of the credit and were treated like prima donnas. They belonged on their backs. Ryan would always credit Ewbank with crystallizing his defensive viewpoint. Ewbank would tell his coaches that nothing mattered more than protecting Joe Namath, even if it took nine blockers. “I figured if it was that important to Weeb to protect the quarterback,” Ryan said, “then it ought to mean just as much to the defense to get him.”
After having success in New York — he was on the coaching staff for the Jets team that upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III — he went to Minnesota to coach the defensive line for Bud Grant. And then, he finally got the chance to be his own defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears in 1978. He was 44 years old. And he was ready.
“You can’t play multiple defenses with dumb players,” Buddy announced as he showed up in Chicago. Buddy wasn’t interested in hiding in the background. He wanted everyone to understand that a football genius had arrived in the Windy City, and he had come to change the way the game was played. He was sure that his menacing bring-the-heat defense would damn well work as long as players weren’t too stupid to pull it off.
From Day 1, he began inventing blitzes — the Cheeseburger blitz, the Taco Bell blitz, the 59 blitz, — and game after game he sent his players in an all-out assault. After a couple of years of trial and error, Ryan invented his masterpiece, the 46 defense, and he loaded up eight men on the line and sent those eight men in all different directions at the snap. It was his Symphony No. 5, his “Hamlet,” his “Starry Night,” even if not everybody got it. “Some say the 46 defense is just an eight-man front,” he growled. “That’s like saying Marilyn Monroe is just a girl.”
In the mid-1980s, he got the right players — with Mike Singletary at middle linebacker, Richard Dent and Otis Wilson and Steve McMichael and Wilber Marshall going after the quarterback, with Gary Fencik and Dave Duerson delivering the punishing blows in the secondary — and put them in his 46 defense. And the NFL changed. The 1985 Bears did not just stuff offenses, they scared the living hell out of teams. They pitched back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs, then steamrolled the Patriots in the Super Bowl. They danced and shuffled the entire way.
After the game, head coach Mike Ditka was carried off the field by his offense.
And Buddy Ryan was carried off the field by his defense.
He built more great defenses when he became head coach in Philadelphia, where, as he would so famously say, he eventually got fired for winning. It’s true: He led the Eagles to the playoffs for three straight seasons. But it turns out that owner Norman Braman could not tolerate watching the Eagles’ offense sputter and flounder in the playoffs. They scored 12, seven and six points in three straight playoff losses and Braman canned Buddy Ryan.
“If any of you know a team that needs a coach that can win,” Ryan said to reporters on his way out of Philadelphia, “let me know.”
He did have one more chapter. He went four years later to coach in Arizona (“Get ready for some winning,” Ryan warned Cardinals fans). His first year was OK, his second a disaster, and that was the end. Buddy Ryan left the game and the stage, though he did leave behind his twin sons, Rob and Rex.
Buddy also left behind a defensive philosophy that thoroughly changed professional football. Almost nobody uses the 46 anymore, but everybody believes as Buddy believed, that defenses are meant to attack, that the quarterback must be pressured.
Of course, not everybody is willing to push all their chips in the way Buddy Ryan did. He threw EVERYTHING at an offense, and there was no Plan B. “If there is a breakdown in pass coverage,” Gary Fencik told reporters during Ryan’s first year as a defensive coordinator. “It could be a BIG breakdown.”
That never changed. One of my favorite plays in NFL history remains Steve Bono’s 76-yard bootleg against Buddy Ryan’s last defense. Bono, as he readily admitted, couldn’t run at all. He was only looking to get a few yards. But Buddy’s defense had been fooled, and as Fencik had warned, breakdowns become big breakdowns. Bono just ran and ran into open field. The field was so open that the Chiefs offensive lineman Joe Valerio just sort of waved him on, like a third-base coach. It was, frankly, one of the funniest plays in NFL history.
“To be candid, I was not expecting him to go the distance,” Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “All I said to Bono was, ‘Don’t pull a hamstring.’ At the rate he runs, there was no danger of that.”
Well, that was the flip side of the Buddy Ryan defense, the thing that would happen if everyone wasn’t fully focused and playing at a fever pitch. That’s what my buddy and I kept running into. We would design these sophisticated defenses, and the X’s and O’s would bounce into each other and move around each other, but the defense never quite got the job done. We couldn’t get it done because the real secret to Buddy Ryan’s defense was Buddy Ryan. He instilled in his players fear and hunger and confidence and fury. He made his players feel invincible.
You can’t really do that with X’s and O’s on a computer screen.